Trailblazer Series provides feeling of belonging for young female players

April 16th, 2022
From left, Daisy Armendariz, Aaliyah Marquez and Gisele ZamarronPhoto credit: Oscar Armendariz

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Juan Garciga bounced from diamond to diamond at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, careful to plan his steps around who was stepping to the plate or taking the ball on the mound.

Back and forth, back and forth. A “nice swing” here, a conference behind the backstop with a group of dads on a botched grounder there; always nodding, usually clapping.

With three girls in this week’s Trailblazer Series, Garciga certainly got his steps in.

“I want to make them feel like they’re being supported,” Garciga said. “That was the whole thing about coming out here. I wanted them to know that they’re being supported, and that we want to help them, as much as possible, to be successful.”

The children aren’t his own, which makes the show of support all the more impressive. As the director of the Texas Rangers MLB Youth Academy in Dallas, Garciga has many athletes under his care, and he does what he can to reach each of them on a personal level.

With three athletes in one place, Garciga couldn’t resist coming to spend the weekend, cheering.

Daisy Armendariz, Giselle Zamarron and Aaliyah Marquez certainly appreciate the effort.

“It feels like I’m being appreciated, you know?” said the 12-year-old Zamarron. “Like someone’s trying to help girls out, trying to expose us and help us keep going.”

The trio and their director traveled to Florida this week along with nearly 100 other girls from 25 states, Washington, Puerto Rico and Canada to take part in the annual Trailblazer Series, dedicated to providing playing, development and educational opportunities to girls who play baseball.

For some, like the 11-year-old Marquez, it was exciting to build camaraderie with young women who deal with the same issue she does, mainly being the only -- or one of the very few -- girls on a boys’ baseball team back home.

“It’s been fun, and it’s really interesting,” Marquez said. “My favorite part is seeing other girls pitch to me. [The boys] treat me the same, but it’s not the same at the same time.”

Marquez began playing on Garciga’s 12U-advanced team when she was just 9 years old after Garciga evaluated her and worried that she was already so powerful that she might hurt one of the boys. There has been, of course, the occasional grumbling from parents of the boys, but Garciga takes it all in stride.

“[One day] I said, ‘Aaliyah, you pitch a little, right? Get up on the bump real quick,’ and she struck out the side,” Garciga said with a grin. “I was looking at the parents like, ‘Get mad if you want, but she just diced up all your boys.’”

The same can be said for Armendariz, who traveled to a tournament in New Orleans through the Youth Academy shortly after Garciga discovered her talent.

Photo credit: Oscar Armendariz

“When I got there, [Daisy] was the only girl practicing with the boys, but Juan accepted her,” said Daisy’s father, Steven Armendariz. “He said, ‘The kid can ball, let her ball.’”

“I like [Trailblazer] because, I guess, she doesn’t feel like an outcast,” said Daisy's mother, Maria Armendariz. “She’s not the only girl playing ball; there’s multiple girls playing ball.”

Even with all her experience to this point, this was the first trip to Trailblazer Series for the 13-year-old Armendariz, who came away with lasting memories and, as her mother said, a feeling she was right where she belonged.

“Sometimes [the boys] doubt you, but you’ve just got to prove to them that you’re better, or on the same level as them,” she said. “Everybody [at Trailblazer] is related to the same things, or problems, so it’s nice to be around all the girls and coaches who understand.”

Saturday concluded this year’s Trailblazer festivities after four days packed with activity. On Thursday, All American Girls Professional Baseball League stars Maybelle Blair and Jeneane Lesko, and Little League World Series star Mo’ne Davis chatted with the group about the importance of following their dreams and continuing to advance the cause that is girls playing baseball.

On Friday the group traveled to Miami to see the Marlins take on the Phillies. The girls were special guests of the Marlins and general manager Kim Ng, who started the Trailblazer Series in 2017. Ng spoke to the girls at length before the game about the importance of following their dreams and never letting anyone tell them they can’t do something simply because they’re female.

Ng would know a little bit about that, as she made history on Nov. 10, 2020, when she became the highest-ranking woman in baseball operations among the 30 MLB teams.

Garciga was thrilled for his trio to be exposed this week to such inspirational female leaders -- a list that included a talented group of coaches who are also some of the country's best female coaches and players, including women on USA Baseball's Women's National Team.

Garciga is also eager to carry on the trend back home, where he’ll continue to go out of his way to make sure these girls and others are included.

“It’s just cool for them to have this experience,” he said. “At the Youth Academy, if they want to play baseball, they can play baseball, and we’ll support them as long as they want to play baseball. … We don’t push them one way or the other.

“We support them, but they’ve earned it. These girls, they’re better than a lot of our guys are, and if they want to play baseball, we’ll put them in the best position to have some success on the baseball side.”